E
Apr/May 2005 fiction

Conjugating Sleep

by Susan Dugan


The cooks are yelling again for no apparent reason in a language I have no real desire to understand—a language that grates on my ears and nerves, at times resembling a growl, at others the distinct phlegmy gurgle of spitting. Cursing me and my colleagues for the demands we make upon them merely by slipping our tiny lined order sheets over the aluminum barrier between us, behind which skewered lamb smokes and spits on open grills and a bald, meatball-shaped man named Peter coughs into a giant vat of hummus. A customer at table eight, some John Travolta impersonator, an unruly ascot of black hair embellishing his open collar, has his hand in the air again, clamoring for my attention—as if I have any control over the whims of these Aegean refugees.

Across the vast, warehouse-like space studded with wooden tables of various shapes and sizes and vintages, John Travolta writhes away in his chair, index finger stabbing at the air, and I am about to risk a verbal thrashing by asking Peter if he has the spanakopita and gyros plate I ordered 20 minutes ago when the Gods in a very uncharacteristic move venture down from Olympus on my behalf in the form of my boss, Anastasia.

"Colleen, I want you to switch sections with Debra," she says, patting me on the shoulder. "I'm moving you up front with the family. Alicia didn't show up again. We have no choice."

Overwhelmed by her obvious confidence in me, I nonetheless wipe my hands on my apron, throw back my shoulders (I was a dancer growing up—I have the posture to prove it) and glance fleetingly at Peter and his meatball brigade, nonplused by the insolent way he stares straight at my chest with a little smirk I have never encountered on that bulbous-nosed, ill-shaved, surly-lipped mug of his before, deciding I would prefer his usual evil-eyed tirade. Still, Anastasia is finally allowing me to wait on the family after seven whole weeks of serving tight-fisted students, T.A.s, and professors who left me counting their meager dimes and quarters and occasional dollar bills in the wee hours in the vain hope of making enough profit to cut back on my shifts—the vain hope of one day snagging more than a few hours of sleep before dashing off to another lecture on the lurid Freudian aspects of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre or the latent feminist consciousness lurking in the work of Jane Austen.

"Hey, honey," mutters a hunch-backed man in a black suit, a starched white shirt, and a skinny, navy blue tie. A field of sparsely seeded gray hair plagues his pebbled scalp as he peers up at me through a pair of black, rectangular-shaped glasses, behind which roam a rheumy set of asphalt-colored eyes. He clenches a cigarette between gnarled, liver-spotted knuckles, and I watch its slinky ash grow, defying gravity, holding my breath against the moment when it will collapse on the long, rough-hewn table where he sits at the head, seemingly unaware of the glass ashtray not a foot away. I slide it toward him.

"Bring me a cup of coffee, will ya, honey, and an ouzo and a glass of retsina for the lady here," he mumbles in a Greek accent that seems deeper and flatter than Anastasia's boss and distant cousin, Andros, the thirty-something, manic-depressive, here today, gone tomorrow owner of the Athenian Kitchen. Beside him, a girl about my age stretches her arms over her head like a cat, tossing a mane of dark hair over her shoulder with a flick of her head (a technique I have never truly mastered and so have come to despise) before folding and resting both pale hands on the man's shoulder with a sigh, heavily made up eyes fluttering like trapped moths. I cannot help but ogle the pea-sized sapphire on her finger.

"Give Papa a kiss," the man grumbles and the girl obediently pecks at one of his many deeply grooved furrows.

I glance at my watch: 1:55. I will have to get the liquor order in right away before they shut the bar, I think, scurrying away, actually touched by the thought that the obvious elder of the family has taken his granddaughter out for a nightcap. Even criminals have their soft spots, I think, or at least Greek ones, in this case. We all hold our share of light and darkness (regardless of what the nuns tried to drum into me, which fortunately did not take). I order the ouzo and wine and dash off to grab the coffee.

By the time I return, the table has completely filled with what one might at first mistake for a convention of funeral directors—men in black suits ranging in age from 30 to 80, many with young girls (even younger than moth-eyes or me!) draped on their shoulders, girls who appear wide awake despite the obvious fact that they have long surpassed their bedtimes. Amidst a haze of smoke and a cacophony of raised voices, people fire orders at me and I scribble away, beaming. More coffees and ouzos and retsinas, saganaki and hummus and avgolemono and platters of Kalamari. I start to explain that the bar is closed, but a hush falls over the table and Grandpa massages the pocket of his jacket. I imagine a weapon concealed there and back away, deciding to allow Anastasia, who after all has grown up with these people—is likely related to these people—to break the bad news.

Rushing toward the kitchen, legs churning (sometimes I love my job, after two in the morning when a second wind kicks in, adrenaline suddenly fueling my limbs, the juice of revived efficiency stinging my swinging arms), I deal the orders out like cards to Peter, who actually smiles an almost normal smile, picking them up and turning them over one by one like lucky quarters on the sidewalk. I have graduated, I congratulate myself. I'm working the family now.

"How's it going?" breathes Anastasia, smacking a stack of menus against her black crepe pants. She has a dulcet voice for such a tall, large-framed woman, an odd voice for a Greek when you come right down to it. (They are, as a group, and yes, it is a stereotype, the loudest human beings I have ever encountered save for the Puerto Rican family that moved in down the street my senior year and started blasting salsa music and grilling goats in their front yard—and my Uncle Lester, related only by marriage and unilaterally shunned by both the Irish and French sides of my family—even if Anastasia proved the exception to the rule.) Short flaps of gleaming black hair obscured her ears, and a rosebud mouth sat at odds with her oversized eyes and nose as if transplanted from someone else's face. A second-generation immigrant, she maintained a supple voice of sanity in the kitchen and the front of the house, balancing Andros' proclamations and rages with a hand to a trembling shoulder, a whispered reversal of yet another of her cousin's ill founded edicts. In short, she ran the joint. The wait staff would not have endured without her intervention, and homicide certainly would have claimed the kitchen.

"Great," I tell her. "They want ouzo, though. I tried to tell them the bar was closed, but..."

She shrugs. "I'll take care of it," she says. "I should have told you—I'll handle the liquor orders. It can get pretty hectic down there, Colleen, so call if you need a hand."

I nod. "Really, it's fine, so far. They're not hitting on me, if that's what you mean," I say, invigorated by the sight of Peter pressing a plate of dolmades into my hand. (Being hit on, along with sorry tips that required high volume to counterbalance, was a reality I had nearly accepted as my chosen lot for opting to make up to my parents the additional tuition required by choosing a private over a state school.) "Anyway it's so cute, I mean, the way they bring their daughters and granddaughters with them."

Anastasia starts to laugh, quietly, of course, shoulders soundlessly heaving. Peter lobs a torrent of Greek and she murmurs a response. A volley soon overcomes the kitchen, whizzing back and forth over my head among the faceless battalions stooped over sinks and grills, punctuated by guttural chortles and guffaws that leave my cheeks burning. I stack plates of salad up my forearm as I have learned to do, still watching Anastasia, who suddenly swivels to face me again, seeming to register the confusion in my eyes.

"Sweetie," she says, "those are not their daughters and granddaughters."

"Ah," I say, as the light dawns on my own naiveté like another tequila sunrise, illuminating the wicked truth of these mistaken alliances. I mean, these are some extreme age differences.

"Hookers?" I mouth.

She nods and I scurry off to a score of Peter and company cracking themselves up at my expense to get a better look at these women my age and younger, searching their faces in the neon lights spilling through the storefront glass from Commonwealth Avenue for whatever I have missed, a window into their world, a peek at a road not taken. Hoping to flee the grim reality of the weighty innocence I have been unsuccessfully trying to chuck for the past several years—a brief sexual encounter with my high school boyfriend, Scott, which may or may not have technically constituted intercourse, notwithstanding.

 

My legs ache and I know I should go home, but Peter has filled a sundae glass with wine the color of prune juice that he claims to make himself, and I sit at the employee table outside the kitchen, enthroned between Anastasia and Mary Ann, a forty-year-old Southie with three grown kids and a slew of ex-husbands who has worked here for a decade—ever since Andros' dad sent him to America to run the place, or, more likely, to get him out of the country before he got himself killed for good. Peter pulls up a chair and gestures toward my wine glass. He has suddenly decided to like me, and I don't dare risk reversing my good fortune.

"Good," I say, raising my glass in the air. "Bien, bueno," I add, resorting to my high school French and Spanish, even though it actually tastes exactly like it looks. Still, it is beginning to work on my over-amped system and, before I know it, my glass has miraculously refilled itself. I find that the taste grows on me rather quickly.

"You did great tonight, Colleen," Anastasia is saying, which is not actually true. I survived, is perhaps a more accurate description of my family initiation, a point of view I try half-heartedly to advance before the women flanking me cut me off at the pass.

"Nonsense, Colleen. You were superb. They all told me so. Honestly," Anastasia insists.

"They are very good at feedback," Mary Ann says, rubbing her eyes, their irises a bull's eye in a dartboard of concentric dark circles. "I'll grant you that."

"The thing is, they are so, I don't know, normal seeming," I say.

"Real family men," says Mary Ann. "I mean the way they take their daughters and granddaughters out on the town."

Anastasia's fig-shaded eyes crinkle in amusement. "That was good, Colleen," she says. "That was classic."

"I know," I say. (Is there anyone in Kenmore Square who has not yet heard this story?) "But I mean, I thought they would look more dangerous, you know? It kind of freaks me out that a possible murderer could resemble your best friend's father."

"You were expecting eye patches, maybe?" Mary Ann says.

"I know what you mean," says Anastasia. "One of them is my best friend's father."

I sip my wine, basking in the warmth of my new insider status. The other girls have long since fled. Peter rises and returns with a plate of galactobouriko, my favorite dessert, and shoves it toward me, mumbling something to Anastasia, who cocks her head, studies me, and nods. "You're too skinny, he thinks. We need to put some meat on those bird bones."

"Merci, Gracias," I say, plunging my spoon into the custardy, syrupy confection. I'm wondering if I fell asleep on my feet during my last shift as I have been known to do (even though falling asleep in my own bed these days eludes me), if my exhaustion has finally toppled me and I have lapsed into some kind of dream-infused, pastry-laden, Dickens-scripted coma.

"Not many of our girls make it through a single night with the family," muses Anastasia, train of thought unimpeded by Peter's shocking generosity. She holds a Kalamata olive between thumb and forefinger and expertly pops out its pit before depositing it on her tongue. She has beautiful hands. I have never noticed them before—long-fingered and satiny and dimpled, with squared off, pink-tinged nails.

"Remember Janine?" barks Mary Ann, throwing back her tousled, bottled-red head and firing a missile of smoke toward the ceiling fan. "Remember when she locked herself in the freezer and refused to come out, and you had to talk her out of there?"

"She tried to use a butter knife on Peter here," Anastasia says. "Poor, mixed up kid."

Mary Ann erupts in a spasm of laughter culminating in a coughing fit of mammoth proportions that prompts me to stub out the Tarreyton I had bummed from Anastasia and beat her on the back until she spits delicately into her cloth napkin, leans back in her seat, and lights another Camel, raccoon eyes taking in something on the ceiling invisible to the rest of us.

Peter tops off my glass again, and the world starts to spin. "I need to call a cab," I slur, attempting to push up out of my chair.

"Mario!" barks Peter, and a boy I have never seen before materializes at his side, a boy in a double-breasted white chef's shirt and jeans and sandals, my age or older, wearing the face of Michelangelo's David.

Peter issues an indecipherable order, the boy disappears, and I collapse back into my chair.

"I mean it, Colleen, you're a natural," Anastasia is saying. "I could really use some help around here. I cannot count on Andros, and I am burning out. I haven't taken a vacation in five years. We'd pay you well, I'd teach you everything I know, and there might even be a partners' share down the road if you play your cards right."

I try to get my sleep-deprived, alcohol-riddled brain to veer with the drift this conversation has taken, to no avail. "I'm a student," I protest. "I'm in school."

"You could take some time off," she says. "Find yourself. Weren't you just complaining you didn't know anymore why you were getting a degree? Maybe you need some real-life experience. You could always cut back to part time. And you wouldn't have to worry about money anymore. Honey, working these hours and trying to do school, too, it'll kill you," she says. She rests one beautiful palm on my thigh and my whole body seems to dissolve under its silky weight.

"Cab," says Mario, sneaking up behind me. I pull on my trench coat and back away from the table, smiling and waving goodbye. Silently he steers me out the back door and into the alley, past metal dumpsters bulging with plastic bags filled with rotting food and frozen flies. A rat the size of our family's cat darts between the idling Yellow Cab and me. I lunge toward Mario's chest, and it takes me a moment to identify the source of the piercing yelp I hear as coming from my own throat.

I stand still a moment, shoulder to shoulder, studying him out of the corner of my eye. We are exactly the same height—boys my age are always taller or shorter but never my same size—and I find it somehow soothing. He opens the door for me, and I climb inside. The cab pulls away, and I glance back out the window, but my five-foot-seven Michelangelo's David appears to have transported himself back to Florence. Somewhere behind this tunnel of Brownstones we are racing through, a siren trills, and the red neon line of dawn suddenly illuminates a heretofore hidden horizon.

 

She works hard for the money, so hard for the money, Donna Summers booms to the staccato slap of my roommate's platform shoes across our apartment's bare hardwood floors.

Judith stomps around our three-bedroom, fourth-floor walkup in rapid circles like a small, over-fed dog before returning to the bathroom—with which my bedroom shares a thin, dry wall—and firing up her blow dryer again, a drone that eliminates once and for all the possibility of grabbing another half hour of sleep. I am sprawled on my stomach, face cemented to my pillow with drool, trying to invent a childhood that might account for a person behaving like she does. Because Judith is the most self-centered and oblivious human being I have ever encountered in my nineteen years on this planet, and I honestly don't know how much longer I can put up with her.

When my roommate Carrie and I first rented the flat two months ago, we thought it would be a cinch to find a third roommate, but you would not believe the number of complete losers who paraded through these walls before we settled on Judith—just in time to make our first month's rent. Almost immediately, she astounded us with her stupidity and insensitivity, spraying insect repellent inside the refrigerator, for example, when she caught a wayward roach making a run on an ill-wrapped piece of cheese. Then she informed us that the repellent had puddled in the egg container and the refrigerator needed a thorough defrosting and cleaning.

"Didn't she know this stuff is poison?" Carrie seethed.

"I know," I said.

"What, does she think we're the Irish maids?" hissed Carrie, eyes frosting over, and so I, a model of tolerance by comparison, stepped forward to deal with her.

"We all need to take care of ourselves around here," I said, a regular Kissinger in training, over a pot of herbal tea I had brewed us. "It seems like the person who made the mess should be responsible for cleaning up the mess."

She smiled (she never stops smiling, a fake smile plastered on her face day and night—she is a TV major in the communication school, after all, and a future anchorwomen can not afford frowny faces—they could lead to wrinkles!) and shook her head back and forth in that way of hers. A Parkinson's-like gesture designed to show off the glossy brown waves of her Farrah Fawcett do, her dangling, jeweled earrings. She was a BP, short for "beautiful person," the self-proclaimed nickname of the majority of B.U. students who hailed from Bronxville or Great Neck with more money than brains, brandishing their parents' credit cards and an eye-numbing cache of Disco paraphernalia.

She smiled before uttering the sentence that has been ringing like a bad song stuck in my head ever since: "Oh, but I wasn't brought up to clean refrigerators."

Shocked, enraged, flabbergasted, speechless, I retreated to my room and have not approached her since, but I decide, lying here listening for the sixth or seventh time to what passes among her people for music, watching the digital clock creep from 8:56 to 8:57, that the time has come, as they say, to talk of many things.

I wrap myself in my mangy chenille robe, push up off the old twin bed my father and I lugged from storage in my basement in Rocky Ledges, New York, all the way to Back Bay, and I stumble into the hallway—nearly blinded by the overhead bare-bulb light—to find Judith reading the Boston Globe and innocently spooning Danon Yogurt past her rubied lips at the kitchen table Carrie and I bought from the boys who rented before us along with a spring-shot couch covered in a mostly worn-off Brillo-like fabric and a black lacquer coffee table.

"Judith," I bark over the music, but (surprise, surprise) she can't hear me.

I march into her room and turn off the stereo, march back into the dining room.

"Oh, Colleen," she says, glancing up, blinking behind her violet-tinted, oversized glasses. (Her nearsighted, artificially fringed eyes appear larger than life behind the thick lenses, but I know from seeing her spectacle-free that they are actually quite beady.) "Didn't know you were up."

"Judith," I say, plopping down across from her in one of our wobbly chairs, leaning my elbows on the pocked gray Formica. "I'm pretty sure you realize this, but just in case it has somehow escaped you, I work four nights a week until four in the morning. I don't get home until dawn. I have eleven, sometimes ten o'clock classes the next day. I need to sleep in until the very last moment. Only, that hasn't been happening."

"Insomnia?" she says, twirling a chunk of hair around a manicured finger that sports the longest, reddest nail I have ever seen, a nail only a person not brought up to clean refrigerators could possibly maintain. "I have some sleeping pills my Mom gave me," she says. "And a prescription for Valium. You can have some if you need them. I can always get a refill."

My head throbs from last night's infusion of wine and sugar. I rub my gritty eyes. OK, so irony doesn't work. Ditto sarcasm. I will try to be literal. It is not my forte, but I will give it a shot.

"Judith, I can't be taking a sleeping pill and expect to wake up four hours later and be on my way," I tell her. (I am pretty sure about this because my next-door neighbor's mother went through a sleeping pill phase during which she was difficult to rouse even after twelve hours, and eventually she had to be returned for reprogramming.) "Besides, that's not the point."

Judith glances at her watch and shoots up out of her chair. "Sorry, Colleen, but I got to get out of here. I'm meeting this really cute guy from my news-writing class to edit our story about that girl that got raped and killed last week in Cambridge. Did I tell you we got this fabulous footage yesterday of her parents just losing it when the police showed up to break the news? I am so going to ace this class."

She trots over, plucks a fitted denim jacket off the lopsided, tarnished brass coat rack Carrie and I found at a garage sale over the summer near her home in North Jersey, and slings her satchel over one shoulder.

"Judith," I say. "The thing is, you have got to quit blasting music and clomping around on those shoes of yours on mornings after I've worked. I can't go on like this. I'm wasted. I feel like I'm looking at the world through layers of gauze. I'm going to flunk out. I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. Please, you've got to help me out here."

"God, Colleen," she says, peering up at me with a disgusted, bulgy-lipped smile, as if I am that offending roach from earlier, all grown up despite her best efforts. "All you had to do is ask."

I sigh, biting back tears of frustration.

"Oh, and Colleen," she calls back over her shoulder from the warped threshold: "The bathroom's a bit of a mess. The tub could really use some work."

I salute the closed door, mentally adding the word "bathroom" to the long list of things Judith was not raised to do.

 

Je dors, tu dors, elle dort, nous dormons, vous dormez, elles dorment, I scribble in my lined notebook, sitting in Mr. Armor's Shakespeare Tragedies I class, trying to tune out a discussion about the adolescent self-absorption at the base of Hamlet's ruin in favor of my own self-absorption, which finds me conjugating the verb to sleep in French and Spanish. Je dormirai, tu dormiras, elle dormira, nous dormirons, vous dormirez, elles dormiront, I scribble, in the vain hope that conjugating the future tense may somehow win me a future night's rest. (As illogical an assumption as the obsessive practice of copying Mrs. Colleen Ryan, Mrs. Charles Ryan, Ms. Colleen Ryan, over and over again into my Mead composition book in junior high, attempting to manifest a happily ever after ending to my hopeless crush on Charlie Ryan.)

I glance over to find Carrie quizzically staring at me. I slip my notebook to the edge of my desk to allow her to read. She smiles, shakes her head, arranges her nearly waist-length hair behind her ears in her slow-motion way, and scribbles in her notebook: You are losing your mind.

What's your point? I scribble back.

"Ms. Sullivan, Ms. Bailey, something you'd like to share with us?" warbles Mr. Armor, Adam's apple bobbing around in his Icabod Crane neck like a loose ballbearing. Before I took this class, I didn't think it possible to destroy Shakespeare, but Mr. Armor has done it handily with his pedestrian interpretations and barely concealed rage at the human race in general for a host of unknown transgressions. Really, this is the kind of thing I had to put up with in Catholic grade school but do not feel I deserve from this particular university given the tuition my parents and I have been barely scraping together.

When I was about three years old, my mother had once again tried to make me nap (which I fought valiantly and consistently day in and day out). Still, she forced me to go to my room every day at two o'clock and stay there for at least an hour to prevent herself, I suppose, from throwing a Mr. Armor-like fit. One afternoon, lying on my side in bed, playing with wooden clothespins on which I'd crayoned faces, I accidentally drifted off, only to dream of another mother, another me, living another better life that did not involve naps. I awoke and raced into the kitchen where my mother and my neighbor (the pill popper who later ended up in the loony bin) sat swilling coffee, demanding to know from them who was real: the mother in my dream or her? I have never quite accepted her answer.

This is just another bad dream, I tell myself now, watching a greenish blue, raised, worm-like vein on Mr. Armor's temple pulse. I really have been sleeping all along.

Carrie and I shake our heads in unison, and before Mr. Armor can further patronize us, a shaggy headed kid in the front row unwittingly intervenes in our behalf by glancing at his watch.

Mr. Armor lunges forward on his Daddy Long legs, yanks off his own watch and dangles it in the guy's face. "It's eleven-fifty-five," he shrieks. "You only have to endure me for five more minutes, Mr. Chillelli."

Everyone stares at his or her desks, which does not prevent our collective peripheral visions from registering the astonishing sight of Mr. Armor's hands flying up and down his scrawny limbs as if frisking himself in an unsuccessful effort to regain his self-composure.

Yo duermo, tu duermes, el duerme, nosotros dormimos, vosostros dormis, ellos duermen, I write, rubbing my bloodshot eyes.

 

If one more stiff with a hooker on his arm so much as asks me for a glass of water, I swear to God I will run screaming out into freezing traffic and never look back.

Needless to say, my brief honeymoon with the family has come to a bitter end. I cannot believe the complete self-centeredness of these hoodlums, who place their orders practically one olive at a time, leaving me endlessly sprinting back and forth to the kitchen for a cup of soup, a plate of cheese, a burger, a baklava (which I have decided must be the first thing they offer you to eat on arrival to hell). I have lost so much weight, my gold cotton uniform hangs sack-like on my flat chest, and I am exhausted to the point that when the one who resembles Sunny in The Godfather decides to ignore me as I stand there trying to deliver a plate of hummus and a basket of pita, my eyes fall shut and do not open again until the hummus has completely slipped off my forearm. I watch it arduously coat his jacket sleeve, my reflexes shot, my brain unable to relay a message to my hands quickly enough to prevent a full-blown chickpea mudslide.

"This is exactly what I'm talking about sweetheart," Anastasia says after we've closed, after I offered to have his jacket dry-cleaned and he gallantly refused (leaving me in the uncomfortable position of owing a hit man!).

I sit methodically filling red plastic ketchup bottles, attempting to restore some order to the hopeless chaos my life seems to have, of its own accord, become.

"An assistant manager does not have to run around like a banshee," she croons. "An assistant manager gets to work day shifts, too, sometimes, if you quit your classes that is, or at least cut back to half time."

"I've got to put these away," I tell her, too tired to argue. "Oh, and Anastasia, can you cash this check for me before you leave?"

"Shhhh, shhhh," she says, shaking her head, her own little version of "tisk, tisk," plucking the check out of my hands and heading for the cash register. (The Athenian Kitchen insists on cashing all employee checks in-house—a family thing, I'm told.)

"Buy you a retsina?" Mario asks as I close the supply closet door. I flinch. "You scared me," I say. "You always come out of nowhere. How do you do that?"

He shrugs. "I'll bring it over," he says, and I head for the employee table.

"I'm going home," says Anastasia, pressing a wad of cash into my hand. "Give you a ride?"

Mario sets two glasses of wine on the table and plunks down beside me.

"No thanks," I say. "I'm still pretty wound."

"Just think about it, Colleen," she says. "That's all I'm asking."

When she has gone, Mario raises his glass, clinks it against mine. His eyes are soft brown, a darker shade than mine, round and simple and horse-like. I have an overwhelming urge to rest my cheek against his neck.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

We have known each other less than three weeks, and yet I already feel transparent around him. No, worse: undressed, naked, although not in an entirely bad or weird way. He seems to register my every mood. I see myself in all my agony reflected back from his perfectly chiseled face. I drag my eyes away, fearful of stumbling and drowning there, Narcissus-like.

"What makes you think something's wrong?" I ask. I don't know anything about him, I remind myself, except that he is supposedly Peter's nephew sent here by his parents to work, saving money to go to a U.S. school. He claims to have his eye on Amherst, wants to be a writer, a poet, maybe, ha! (He has absorbed my story, my emotions, my conflicts, sitting here staring back at me, my own Platonic twin. Sometimes I wonder if I have imagined him.) It is all a story, I remind myself, a cover. I cannot trust this boy. I know nothing of his real life, zero, zip, rien, nada.

I sip my wine.

He continues to stare, patient, my own Trojan horse.

The thing is—something is wrong. Last night, my first night off in four days, I awakened to Carrie shaking me out of a nearly sound sleep to a phone call from my sixteen-year-old brother, Timmy, announcing that my father had walked out on my mother for good. My mother had taken to her bed. He wanted me home, needed me home, and if I didn't come home, he was hopping the next train to Boston. My family of origin, an ever-inflating grenade, had lain waiting for someone to light its fuse, and my father's secretary Janine had moved in with her little Bic lighter. They had rented an apartment together, Timmy said. My mother had gone catatonic. Someone had to do something. I had to do something.

My parents, of course, had a much different take on the situation when I interrogated each of them at length by phone, a pointless intervention that cost me a night's tips. "Your brother is grieving," my mother said, sounding pretty much like always, a tightly modulated voice piped out of airport speakers reminding you that unattended bags would be detonated.

"He said you couldn't get out of bed!" I countered.

"He's at a difficult age," she said. "You know how he gets. Your father is having a mid-life crisis, that's all."

"Another one?" I asked. Because in truth, my father had already grown a beard, bought a hot rod, and tried to smoke pot with me, a humiliating turn of events even I, no stranger to humiliation, had failed to foresee.

"He'll come around," she said.

"Timmy said he moved in with that, that..."

"Really, Colleen, it's OK. He's making a fool of himself, and everyone knows it."

My mother derived great comfort from her martyr-like role in this world and seemed convinced that the more public her persecution, the more points she earned in heaven. "Would you put down that cross for fifteen seconds," my father used to say, back when they were on teasing terms, a good line I had adopted as my own and still batted about now and then. Still, this was going too far.

"You don't even give a shit, do you?" I said. "For God's sake, Mom, you've been married to this man for more than two decades. How can you let him do this to you?"

"This does not concern you, Colleen," she said. "You have no idea what goes on in a marriage."

But I thought I did understand the way her rationality/rigidity, his flamboyance/recklessness—opposing traits that once created a kind of stable, parallel track—had, over the years, derailed.

"Jesus Christ, Mom," I said.

"Watch your language, Colleen."

"Your mother and I have not lived as man and wife for some time, Colleen," my father said, a bit of information I had no desire to absorb. "I should have taken matters into my own hands a long time ago."

"Leaving your wife for a woman half your age is taking matters into your own hands?" I said. "Jesus, Dad, you are such a cliché."

"This is not about Janine," he said. "This is between me and your mother. Don't worry, I plan to be very fair about this. And I'll still pay for school, if that's what you're worried about."

"I don't care about school anymore," I cried. A lie, of course, because Anastasia's persistent offers of an alternate reality had made me realize just how much I did care about school. I did not want to work at the Athenian Kitchen for a bunch of gangsters the rest of my life. I wanted to grow up, write the great American novel or maybe get appointed to the Supreme Court, pay off my loans, and get back at my parents once and for all through the undeniable perfection of my own marriage.

As if suddenly channeling for my mother, my father issued a long-suffering sigh. Tears stung my eyes. I had spent my whole life adoring my father and his child-like ways. Now I would have to hate him.

"It will all work out, Colleen," he said. "You'll see. I know it's painful right now, but you'll get over it."

"And what about Timmy?" I charged. "He wants to move in with me."

"He's at a difficult age," he said. "You know how he gets."

Mario watches, as if he can see straight through my forehead to the pathetic little documentary playing there.

"How do you say to sleep in Greek?" I ask.

"To sleep?" he repeats, seemingly puzzled.

"Right."

A sound full of static—like when you turn the volume up too high on a set of lousy speakers—issues from his throat.

"Write it," I tell him, reaching into my purse and pulling out the pad and pen I lug around in the unlikely event my muse should decide to start dictating.

His hand scratches across the page, leaving a hieroglyphic trail in its wake and dashing all hopes of breaking another international code.

I sip my wine, unaware my eyes are falling shut, my head bobbing on my neck as if lulled to sleep on a train. Another vision swirls in my head, swimming in a soft pinkish light. I am dressed in street clothes, green corduroy pants and a matching jacket from the Anne Klein outlet down the street. I am happily zipping around, greeting customers at the restaurant's front door, stopping to chat and joke with family members, smoothing Peter's rumpled feathers with a sing-song voice and a peck on a grizzled jaw, checking the accounting on the pastry orders, comforting a new employee whose first customer found the top of a beer bottle inexplicably embedded in his yogurt and honey. It is 6:30, a reasonable hour for dinner, and my brother sits alone eating at a table overlooking the glassed dessert counter working on his homework. At eight o'clock, I'll be off, and we'll head home to our apartment where he has taken Judith's bedroom (Carrie and I having tossed her out on her privileged derriere in this particular scenario), and I am making up the additional rent with salary from my new assistant manager's job, having finally taken matters into my own hands, as I should have done years ago, setting my parents free and smuggling my brother out of their neurotic web.

In slow motion my wine glass tips and rolls toward the table's edge, pale yellow nectar dripping onto my knees. I jolt awake as if slapped.

"Come lie down," Mario coaxes, pulling me to my feet by the wrist and picking me up like a child in his strong arms.

He carries me into a cell-like room with cement walls and floors, a small aluminum sink, and a bunk bed, puts me down on the lower bunk, slips off my shoes. He lights a squat, white candle on a low table beside the bed and switches off the overhead fluorescent light. There is a poster of Earth, Wind & Fire and a wooden cross with a two-dimensional, expressionless Christ painted on front. Books are piled in neat little towers, and a small, black boom box rests on top of two pushed-together piles. I stretch out on my side, watching him crack open the barred window looking out on a sleet-slicked sidewalk and slip in a tape—something sweet and jazzy, Winston Marsalis, he tells me, a song called "The Wee Hours of the Morning"—ha! He kicks off his shoes and climbs in beside me, fully clothed.

I turn to face the wall, my back fitting like a missing puzzle piece into the groove of his body. And really, oddly, there is nothing sexual about it, I notice, briefly wondering why that would be. I drift in that all-too-familiar space between exhaustion and hyperactivity, the jetlag that has become my permanent state of being.

Thinking about Anastasia's offer, rescuing Timmy, severing ties with my insane parents, the warmth of Mario's neck, the tangy herbal scent of him, the strange monk-like quality he exudes, saxophone sobbing and piano keys running like water in my ears. The derelict possibility that sleep—true, deep, uninterrupted sleep—might yet erode the thick ball of sentiment collecting in my throat that is nearly choking me.

Against my back, Mario's bellow-like lungs expand and contract rhythmically. He is already asleep. How do people do that? I nestle deeper into him, thinking to absorb the elusive state by osmosis, wondering if what I have needed all along is simply a warm body with whom to share the dark.

Je dormirai, tu dormiras, elle dormira, nous dormirons, vous dormirez, elles dormiront, I murmur, over and over, as a man I hardly know, who might be a killer, momentarily stirs, strokes my hair, and I descend into stillness, assuring myself that it will all work out. That I, too, am simply at a difficult age. That I have, in fact, dreamt this entire thing—this restaurant and Judith and Carrie, the family and Peter and Mario and Anastasia, my parents and my brother and their ongoing drama—that I will awaken to the real world I first glimpsed at three years old. If only I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and keep on conjugating sleep.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece